The Vinyl Debate – Part 2: Q&A with John Dahl of THX

The Sound Expert: John Dahl, Senior Fellow and Director of Education at THX.

theOCMD: The popularity of vinyl is on the rise.  And with it comes the resurgence of the vinyl vs. digital debate. As an audio expert, what’s your opinion on the subject? Does vinyl truly sound better than digital?

(Disclaimer: Please note that THX does not have or need a position on vinyl vs. digital since virtually 100% of the recorded audio in the THX universe is digital.)

I think it is very important to make a clear distinction between “better” (subjective), and “accurate” (objective). Better is purely in the brain of the individual listener and I can’t really comment. On the other hand, the market has come down 99.99999% on the side of digital. So by any rational measure digital is resoundingly “better”. But I doubt that’s the issue here.

A couple of observations. The word “vinyl” describes a storage media (a vinyl record) while “digital” refers to a coding methodology. So the terms themselves describe entirely different things. Also note that there are dozens of different types of “digital” coding techniques but a scant handful of analog techniques for “vinyl”. For this debate let’s assume that most people making this comparison are talking about 33 1/3 rpm vinyl albums versus the common 16/44 PCM CDs. The debate might be better described as Analog versus Digital. Remember too that all microphones, headphones and loudspeakers are fundamentally analog devices so no matter what the coding and delivery method one is always listening to an analog of analog (so to speak).

There is no question that the analog record/playback chain imposes long list of changes to the recorded signal that are themselves analog and are directly audible when they fall in our normal range of hearing. There is also no question that a well-done digital recording imposes no such analog changes to the signal. Note the emphasis on “well done”. It is true that there are any number of poorly done digital recordings, particularly after they have been filtered through the internet. Of course there are also innumerable badly done audio recordings that when digitized don’t (usually) get any better. There are even analog recordings that are digitized, “cleaned up” digitally then delivered to consumers on vinyl!

So what? When the same material is played through the same set of speakers in the same room under the same conditions it is clear that fans of vinyl really like the changes to the signal imposed by analog. So vinyl is better subjectively in the sense that, as the consumer, they prefer that sound. Because they are paying customers they are by definition “right” subjectively. Quality digital recording does not impose these changes on the signal and is by definition objectively “right” in the sense that the electrical signal being fed to the speaker is identical to the electrical signal coming from the microphone. For digital I think a better descriptor than “right” would be “accurate”. In the movie or games business we are primarily concerned with delivering a consistently accurate copy of the signal and leave it to the consumer to change it as they see fit.

theOCMD: Do you think the recent resurgence in vinyl is a trend or here to stay?

You will notice that I’ve avoided speculating on why some people love vinyl (including my brother Steve and my sister Laurie, both respected professional musicians). From my days in the Hi Fi business I remember a lot of physical involvement in vinyl; special storage and cleaning techniques and products, selecting, mounting and adjusting the needle, getting the best turntable/tonearm combination, special record flattening products, fine tuning the speed and so forth). All of which introduce an important ritual component to playing vinyl that is not present in digital. But at the end of the day, I don’t really know. I doubt vinyl will ever be more than a tertiary part of the music scene because it’s not so much about the music, as about expectations, history and arcane knowledge. Being into vinyl makes you part of a special group with esoteric knowledge and such groups have always occupied an important place in society. I’m not one of them but long may they prosper.

theOCMD: Regardless of the music format, do you have some simple tips readers can employ to improve their listening experience at home?

Assuming  you use good quality electronics and do not push them beyond their designed limit, quality sound is ALL about the matrix of:

  • Quality of the recording
  • System setup and calibration
  • Loudspeaker quality
  • Room acoustics

Regardless of the equipment you use it pays to consider the following.

  • Seats away from the walls three feet or more, facing the stage
  • Speakers placed logically and have clear coverage of the listeners(s)
  • BEST TRICK – Aim the speakers at the listener(s) by listening to pink noise
  • Send all the bass to the subwoofer(s) regardless of speaker size (yes, even for music)
  • Position the subwoofer(s) for the most accurate bass response at the listener(s)
  • Reduce audible and visible distractions

Hands down the most useful reference book on this topic is Floyd Toole’s “Sound Reproduction, Loudspeakers and Rooms”.

Trendspotting: Vinyl’s Comeback – Part 1

I’ve been tracking this trend for a while, the resurgence of vinyl.  I find it intriguing. Not long ago, vinyl was presumed as dead as the 8 track. While there was always a market for used and vintage vinyl among the hardcore collectors, the appreciation for analog has now crossed over to the younger generation and more casual listener. Now record shops, vinyl record shops, are back en vogue and popping up everywhere.

It got me curious to know what’s behind all this.  Is vinyl a fad that will fade or is it here to stay? Is it any coincidence that as the CD has died, vinyl as re-emerged in it’s place? As much as we love the convenience of digital music, do we – at the end of the day – need something to hold and touch? Or is it the music industry that needs a physical format? Does analog truly sound better than digital? Or is being a vinyl lover just a way to differentiate yourself from the music masses?

I decided to ask the experts and have gathered perspectives from a cross section of industries and disciplines. Over the next few days, you’ll hear opinions on the subject from:

  • The Acoustics Expert: John Dahl of THX
  • The Vinyl Expert: Vince Slusarz of Gotta Groove Records.
  • The Music Industry Expert: Shamal Ranasinghe of Topspin
  • The Marketing and Trends Guru: Seth Godin

It was a fun project and I hope you enjoy the series and their perspectives.  And please, chime in and tell us what you think.